Contemplation and commemoration: An artist and a father's service pays tribute to Sandy Hook victims

A recent trip to the Sandy Hook Memorial in Bridgeport led to an unexpected connection and outcome.
The monument sits in St. Margaret Shrine, known as "the best kept secret in the area," according to Deacon Don Faust. Others call it a hidden gem of tranquility, spirituality and natural beauty.
"Our sign on Park Avenue says, 'An Oasis of Peace,' and that comes through to many that come here," said Faust.
Filled with statues, memorials and fountains, St. Margaret Shrine is a sacred space for contemplation and commemoration.
But on a sunny spring day this month, that peace was interrupted with activity by artist Armando Palumbo. The 81-year-old had some help as he did maintenance on one of those memorials--a piece he created to honor the 20 first graders and six educators whose lives were taken in a mass shooting that haunts the nation to this day.
"When the kids got killed in Newtown at Sandy Hook, I felt compelled that I had to do something to remember those children," Palumbo said.
The tribute went up in 2016, but time has taken a toll on it.
"I stop here periodically or semi-frequently, and I noticed that the Sandy Hook Memorial Shrine had leaves and dirt in there under the protective cover and went over to the office and asked if I could volunteer to clean that out," said a recent visitor.
That visitor was Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Heslin was put in contact with Palumbo, a man he didn't know, and on this day, the two met up at St. Margaret Shrine, armed with tools, cleaning solution and rags. While Heslin worked side by side with the artist to care for the memorial, he reflected on it.
"I mean there's a warm feeling, but there's sadness. The sadness is clearly my loss. But the warm part of that is the kindness and the generosity that came with this," Heslin said.
The piece has 26 stars at the bottom and 26 stars at the top, representing each of the victims' time on earth and now up in heaven, Palumbo said. At the center is a painting of Jesus surrounded by kids and below that, a passage from Matthew 19:14, "Let the Children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these."
"That was recited by President Obama when he came to Sandy Hook. I remember that, and that gave me my inspiration," Palumbo told News 12.
Under that reads, "In loving memory of the 26 innocent lives taken in Newtown, CT." The date is etched into the base of monument like it is Heslin's mind.
"It'll be 10 years this December. A whole decade. Unbelievable. It seems like just yesterday. But then on the other hand it seems so distant," Heslin said. "Jesse's birthday is coming up June 30, and...he'll be--would've been 16 years old. It's just...so hard to visualize that."
Jesse will forever be a smiling 6-year-old, he and his fellow victims frozen in time. Their loves ones' pain won't ever be wiped away, but at St. Margaret Shrine, their memories will be preserved.
"I'm doing it for the victims," Heslin said. "It's a good feeling to come here and help clean that, maintain it. I guess it just makes me feel a little closer to--not the tragedy--but Jesse."
The Sandy Hook Memorial and everything else at St. Margaret Shrine is open to the public 24/7.